When one is writing about music, the first impulse is often to boil an artist down to their essence: distilling a career or a series of albums down to a pithy description of genre, style, and broad message. You could label Gabriel Kahane a lot of things: a singer-songwriter, a classical composer, a theater writer, a polymath. He’s dabbled in everything from a song cycle about online personals (2006’s Craigslistlieder) to an off-Broadway musical (the Public Theater’s February House) to a concept album about Los Angeles architecture (2014’s The Ambassador). His latest output is The Fiction Issue, a chamber music album in collaboration with string quartet Brooklyn Rider and singer Shara Worden (a/k/a My Brightest Diamond).
But Kahane balks at the idea of labeling himself or his style, which is as fluid as the variety of modes and subject matters that he works across. “Please, please, please, please, please, stop talking about genre,” he tweeted in December, which sparked an online discussion across a few social platforms about the usefulness of slapping labels on musicians.
Kahane considers himself a storyteller more than any one type of musician. “There are a lot of scales on which to tell stories. I’m much more interested in the quality of the work rather than the style of the work,” he explains, speaking from a tour van on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. “It’s really a question of, ‘What is the content that excites you?'”
Kahane draws inspiration from a deep and rich variety of sources. Songs on The Ambassador alone, for example reference everything from robot mortality in Blade Runner to the assassination of RFK to movie villains’ peculiar love of modernist architecture. The Fiction Issue is broken down into three parts: the six-part title song cycle; “Bradbury Studies,” a deconstruction of one of the songs from The Ambassador; and “Come On All You Ghosts,” three movements based on the works of poet Matthew Zapruder.
The title song cycle came about when Kahane made his Carnegie Hall debut back in 2012. He’d been commissioned to write a new piece for the concert, and approached Brooklyn Rider, who he knew but had yet to work with, and Worden, a longtime friend. It was the start of what would become a years-spanning musical collaboration.
“It is a record of these relationships as much as it is about the music,” Kahane says of the album. “It’s really a document of our musical relationship of the last four years or so.”
The piece itself — whose title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the New Yorker’s annual Fiction Issue — is a stream-of-consciousness song cycle that toggles between the inner monologues of two unnamed people, as sung by Kahane and Worden. The exact subject matter is open to interpretation: There are hints of a disaster in the recent past, and the narrators struggling to push past it.
“What’s a day without a donut?/Light skitters on the sidewalk/My neck feels like an instrument of sunshine,” Kahane sings in the second movement, over a string arrangement that seems to rise into that sunny sky. The lyrics are often funny, too. “I’d wear my shades underground for a number of reasons,” Worden sings in the first movement. “One: to be dashing; two: to be anonymized. Three: to be a spy.”
“Very broadly speaking, it’s a coming-of-age piece. But I tend to be pretty cagey about talking about lyrics,” Kahane says when asked about the piece. “It’s important to me that that subjectivity and ambiguity is there. I really want to let people have their own journey through the narrative.”
Kahane released The Fiction Issue on his own label, Magdeburg Music, which he named for the German town where his grandmother grew up. Originally, the record was intended to be released by Sony, who had put out The Ambassador, but Kahane made the decision to back away from the label and strike out on his own early in the recording process. Though he stresses that Sony was open and supportive when it came to the 2014 album, The Fiction Issue proved to be too idiosyncratic for the label.
“The Ambassador was probably a more commercially viable album than this one was going to be, so I just asked to buy it back from them,” he explains. “It seemed like I’d be better off doing it on my own.”
Kahane is no stranger to collaboration. In his varied career, he’s worked with Sufjan Stevens, the Kronos Quartet, playwright Seth Bockley, and his father, conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, to name a few. In 2014, BAM commissioned him, along with Tony-winning director John Tiffany and set designer Christine Jones, to adapt The Ambassador into a stage show, which featured towers of papers that mimicked the skyline of Los Angeles. Recently, he wrote the lyrics for a song called “Sleek White Baby,” from the Punch Brothers’ latest album, with the band’s Chris Thile sending him a melody via iPhone and Kahane responding with words. “It was a very 21st-century collaboration,” Kahane says with a laugh.
Kahane is on tour with Brooklyn Rider for The Fiction Issue now, making a stop this Sunday at recently opened Williamsburg venue National Sawdust. And he’s not showing any signs of slowing down from there: He’s putting finishing touches on two new pieces for the New York Philharmonic, in the early stages of developing a new piece for the Public Theater, and working on a choral piece for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus based on a text by poet Anne Carson. His plate is full, but working with such various creative partners only energizes him.
“Being a creative person is very lonely,” Kahane says. “Sometimes the collaborative act is a pleasure — a respite from the loneliness and solitude of writing music and lyrics on your own.”
Gabriel Kahane performs at National Sawdust on February 7. For ticket information, click here.